Night descended on Interstate-90 as I crossed over into the Badlands. Real raw weather for October. Snow dusted the asphalt and picnic tables of the deserted rest area. The scene was virginal as death.
I parked the Chevy under one of the lamp posts that burned at either end of the lot. A metal building with a canted roof sat low and sleek in the center island, most of its windows dark. Against the black backdrop it reminded me of a crypt or monument to travelers and pioneers lost down through the years. Placards were obscured by shadows and could’ve pronounced warnings or curses, could’ve said anything in any language. Reality was pliable tonight. Periodically a semi chugged along the freeway, its running lights tiny and dim. Other than that, this was the Moon.
I loosed Minerva and watched her trot around the perimeter of the sodium glow. She raised her graying snout and growled softly at the void that surrounded us, poured from us. Her tracks and the infrequent firefly sparks on the road were the only signs of life for miles. Snow was falling thick, and those small signs wouldn’t last long. It was back to the previous ice age for us, the end for us. I kind-of, sort-of liked the idea that this might be the end, except for the fact sweet, loyal Minerva hadn’t asked for any of it, and my nature—my atavistic shadow—was, as usual, a belligerent sonofabitch. My shadow exhibited the type of nature that causes men to weigh themselves with stones before they jump into the midnight blue, causes them to mix the pills with antifreeze, trade the pistol bullet to the brain for a shotgun barrel in the mouth, just to be on the safe side. My shadow didn’t give a shit about odds, or eventualities, or pain, or certain death. It just wanted to keep shining.
So, Minerva pissed in the snow and I ticked off the seconds until the ultimate showdown.
My ear was killing tonight, crackling like a busted radio speaker and ringing with good old tinnitus. The sensation was that of an auger boring through membrane and meat. My back and knee ached. I lost the ear to a virus upon contracting pneumonia in Alaska during a long ago Iditarod. The spine and knee got ruined after I fell off a cliff into the Bering Sea and broke just about everything that was breakable. Resilience was my gift, and I’d recovered sufficiently to limp through the remainder of a wasted youth, to fake a hale and hearty demeanor. That shit was surely catching up now at the precipice of the miserable slide into middle age. All those forgotten or ignored wounds blooming in a chorus of ghostly pain, reminders of longstanding debts, reminders that a man can’t always outrun provenance. Sometimes it outruns him.
I checked my watch and the numbers blurred. I hadn’t slept in way too long, else I never would’ve pulled over between Bumfuck, Egypt and Timbuktu. Since suicide by passivity was off the table, this was an expression of stubbornness on my part, probably. Grim defiance, or the need to reassert my faith in the logical operations of the universe if but for a moment.
What a joke, faith. What a sham, logic.
A hunting horn sounded far out there in the darkness beyond the humps and swales and treeless drumlins that went on basically forever, past the vast hungry prairies that had swallowed so many wagon trains.
Oh, yes. The horn of the Hunt.
Not simply a horn, but one that could easily be imagined as the hollowed relic from a giant, perverted ram with blood-specked foam lathering its muzzle and hellfire beaming from its eyes. A ram that crunched the bones of Saxons for breakfast and brandished a cock the girth of a wagon axle; the kind of brute that tribes sacrificed babies to when crops were bad and mated unfortunate maidens to when the chief needed some special juju on the eve of a war. Its horn was the sort of artifact that stood on end in a petrified coil and would require a brawny Viking raider to lift. Or a demon.
That wail stood my hair on end, slapped me awake. It rolled toward the parking lot, swelling like some Medieval air raid klaxon. Snowflakes weren’t melting on my cheeks because all the heat—all the blood—went rushing inward. That erstwhile faith in the natural universe, the rational order of reality, wouldn’t be troubling me again anytime soon. Nope.
I whistled for Minerva and she leaped into the truck, riding shotgun. Her hackles were bunched. She barked her fury and terror at the night. Sleep, O blessed sleep, how I longed for thee. No time for that. We had to get gone. The Devil would be there soon.
Years ago, when I raced sled dogs for a living, I knew a fellow named Steven Graham, a disgraced lit professor from the University of Colorado. He’d gotten shitcanned for reasons opaque to my blue collar sensibilities—something to do with privileging contemporary zombie stories over the works of the Russian masters. His past was shrouded in mystery and, like a lot people, he’d fled to Alaska to reinvent himself.
Nobody on the racing circuit cared much about any of that. Graham was charming and charismatic in spades. He drank and swore with the best of us, but he’d also get three sheets to the wind and recite a bit of Beowulf in Olde English, and he knew the bloodlines of huskies from Balto onward. Strap a pair of snowshoes to that lanky greenhorn bastard and he’d leave even the most hardened back country trapper in the proverbial dust. All the girlies adored him, and so did the cameras. Like Cummings said, he was a hell of a handsome man.
Too good to be true.
Steven Graham got taken by the Hunt while he was running the 1992 Iditarod. That’s the big winter event where men and women hook a bunch of huskies to sleds and race twelve hundred miles across Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. There’s not much to say about it—it’s long and grueling and lonely. You’re always crossing a frozen swamp or mushing up an ice-jammed river or trudging over a mountain. It’s dark and cold and mostly devoid of sound or movement but for one’s own breath and the muted panting of the huskies, the jingle and clink of their traces.
Official records have it that Graham, young ex-professor and dilettante adventurer, took a wrong turn out on Norton Sound between Koyuk and Elim and went through the ice into the sea. Ka-sploosh. No trace of him or the dogs was found. The Lieutenant Governor attended the funeral. CNN covered it live.
The report was bullshit, of course; I saw what really happened. And because I saw what really happened—because I meddled in the Hunt—there would be hell to pay.
Broad daylight, maybe an hour prior to sunset, mid March of 1992.
All twelve dogs in harness trotted along nicely. The end of the trail in Nome was about two days away. Things hadn’t gone particularly well, and I was cruising for a middle of the pack finish and a long, destitute summer of begging corporate sponsors not to drop my underachieving ass. But damn, what a gorgeous day in the arctic: the snowpack curving around me to the horizon, the sky frozen between apple-green and steely blue, the orange ball of the sun dipping below the Earth. The effect was something out of Fantasia. After days of inadequate sleep I was lulled by the hiss of the sled runners, the rhythmic scrape and slap of dog paws. I dozed at the handlebars and dreamed of Sharon, the warmth of our home, a cup of real coffee, a hot shower, and the down comforter on our bed.
When my team passed through a gap in a mile-long pressure ridge that had heaved the Bering ice to an eight-foot tall parapet, the Hunt had taken down Graham on the other side, maybe twenty yards off the main drag. This I discovered when one of Graham’s huskies loped toward me, free of its traces yet still in harness. The poor critter’s head had been lopped at mid-neck and it zig-zagged several strides and then collapsed on the trail. You’d think my own dogs would’ve spooked. Instead, an atavistic switch was tripped in their doggy brains and they surged forward, yapping and howling.
Several yards to my right so much blood covered the snow I thought I was hallucinating a sunset dripped onto the ice. The scene confused me for a few seconds as my brain locked down and spun in place.
The killing ground was a fucking mess, like there’d been a mass walrus slaughter committed on the spot. Dead huskies were flung about, intestines looped over berms and piled in loose, steaming coils. Graham himself lay spread-eagled across a blue-white slab of ice repurposed as an impromptu sacrificial altar. He was split wide, eyes blank.
The Huntsman had most of the guy’s hide off and was tacking it alongside the carcass as one stretches the skin of a beaver or a bear. Clad in a deerstalker hat surmounted by antlers, a blood-drenched mackinaw coat, canvas breeches, and sealskin boots, the Huntsman stood taller than most men even as he hunched to slice Graham with a large knife of flint or obsidian—I wasn’t quite close enough to discern which.
Meanwhile, the Huntsman’s wolf pack ranged among the butchered huskies. These wolves were black and gaunt as cadavers; their narrow eyes glinted, reflecting the snow, the changeable heavens. When several of them reared on hind legs to study me, I decided they weren’t wolves at all. Some wore olden leather and caps with splintered nubs of horn; others were garbed in the remnants of military fatigues and camouflage jackets of various styles, gore encrusted and ingrown to the creatures’ hides. They grinned at me and their mouths were . . . very, very wide.
Nothing brave in what I did, or at least tried to do. My befuddled intellect was still processing the carnage when I sank the hook and tethered the team, left them baying frantically in the middle of the trail. I wasn’t thinking of a damned thing as I walked stiff-legged toward the Hunt and the in-progress evisceration of my comrade. Most mushers carried firearms on the trail. There were moose to contend with and, frankly, a gun is pretty much just basic equipment in any case. We toted rifles or pistols like folks in the lower forty-eight carry cell phones and wallets. Mine was a .357 I stowed inside my anorak to keep the cylinder from freezing into a solid lump. The revolver was in my hand and it jumped twice. I don’t recall the booms. No sound, only fire. The closest pair of dog men flipped over and a small part of my mind celebrated that at least the fuckers could be hurt. It wasn’t like the legends or the movies; no silver required, lead worked fine.
The Huntsman whirled when I was nearly upon him, and Jesus help me I glimpsed his face. That’s probably why my hair went white that year. I squeezed the trigger three more times, emptied the gun and even as the bullets smacked him, I had the sense of shooting into an abyss—absolute hopeless, soul-draining futility. The Huntsman swayed, humungous knife raised. The blade was flint, turns out.
Worst part was, Graham blinked and looked right at me and I saw his skinned hand twitch. How he could be alive in that condition was no more or less fantastical than anything else, I suppose. Even so, even so. I still get a sick feeling in my stomach when I recall that image.
Apparently, the gods of the north had seen enough. Wind roared around us and everything went white and I was alone. Hurricane-force gusts knocked me off my feet and I barely managed to crawl to the team, almost missed them, in fact. Visibility was maybe six feet. Easily, easily could’ve kept going into the featureless maelstrom until I found the lip at the edge of a bottomless gulf of open water and joined Graham, wherever he’d gone.
That storm pinned the dogs and me to Norton Sound for three days. Gusts of seventy knots. Wind chill in excess of negative one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. You wouldn’t understand how cold that is. I can’t describe it. It’s like trying to explain how far away Alpha Centauri is from Earth in highway miles. The brain isn’t equipped. Froze my right hand and foot. Froze my face so that it hardened into a black and blue mask. Froze my dick. Didn’t lose anything important, but man, there are few agonies equal to thawing a frostbitten extremity.
I actually managed to cripple across the finish line. Suffering through the aftermath of physical therapy and counseling, the memory of what I’d seen out there was wiped clean from my mind with the efficacy of a kid tipping an Etch A Sketch and giving it a shake. Seven or eight years passed before the horrible event came back to haunt me, and by then it was too late to say anything, too late to be certain whether it had happened or if I’d gone round the bend.
Snow drifted both lanes and the wind buffeted the Chevy, and goddamn, but I was reliving that blizzard of ‘92. The fuel gauge needle fell into the red and I drove another half an hour, creeping along in four-wheel hi. Radio reception was poor and I’d settled for a static-filled broadcast of ’80s rock. Hall & Oates, The Police, a block of Sade and Blue Oyster Cult, all that music our parents hated when we were bopping along in mullets.
“Godzilla” cut in and out during the drum solo, and a distorted animal growl that had nothing to do with heavy metal issued from the speakers. My name snarled over and over to the metronome of the wipers.
A truck stop glittered on the horizon of the next off ramp. Exhausted, frazzled, pissed, and afraid, I pulled alongside the pumps and got fuel. Then I hooked Minerva to a leash and brought her inside with me. She curled at my boots while I drank a quart of awful coffee and ate a New York steak with all the trimmings. The waitress didn’t say anything about my bringing a pit bull to the table. Maybe the folks in Dakota were hip to that sort of thing. Didn’t matter; I’d gotten the little card that proved Minerva was a service dog and of vital importance should I experience an “episode” of depression or mania.
Depression had haunted me since my retirement from mushing, and a friend who worked as counselor at the University of Anchorage suggested that I adopt a shelter puppy and train it as a companion animal. The local police had busted a dog-fighting ring and one of the females was pregnant, so Sharon and I eventually picked Minerva from a litter of eleven. A decade later, after my world burned to the ground—career in ashes, wife gone, friends few and far between—Minerva remained steadfast. A man and his dog versus the Outer Dark.
I patted her head as we went through the door, and wished that I possessed more of her canine equanimity in the face of the unknown.
The diner was doing brisk trade. Two burly truckers in company jumpsuits occupied the next booth, but most of the customers were gathered at the counter so they could watch weather reports on TV. Nothing heartening in the reports, either. The storm would definitely delay me by half a day, possibly more. My ardent hope was that I could just bull through it and be in the clear by the time I crossed Wyoming tomorrow. I also prayed that the pickup would hang together all the way to Lamprey Isle, New York, my destination at the end of the yellow brick road. My plan was to reach the home of an old friend, the eminent crime novelist, Jack Fort. Jack also happened to be a retired English professor. Jack claimed he could help. I had my doubts. The pack and its leader were eternal and relentless. A man could plunk a few, sure. In the end, though, they simply reformed and kept pursuing. The Devil’s smoke demons on the hunt.
Be that as it may, I’d decided to go down swinging, and that meant a hell-bent for leather ride into the east. Currently, my worries centered on weather and equipment. The drive from Alaska via the Alcan Highway had been rough, and I suspected the old engine was fixing to give up the ghost. I could say the same thing about my heart, my sanity, my luck.
Sure enough. Minerva snarled and bolted from her spot under the table. She crouched beside me, shivering. Foam dribbled from her jaw and her eyes bulged.
Graham strolled in, taller and happier than I remembered. Death agreed with some people. He loomed in Technicolor while reality bleached around him. His long black hair was feathered with snowflakes, and the lights hit it just right so he appeared angelic, a movie star pausing for his dramatic close-up. In his right hand, he carried the ivory hunting horn (indeed a ram’s horn, albeit much more modest than its report); in his left he carried a faded cowboy hat with a crimson and black patch on the crown. He wore the Huntsman’s iceberg-white mackinaw, ceremonial flint knife tucked into his belt so the bone handle jutted in a most phallic statement. He ambled over and slid in across from me. I noticed his sealskin boots left maroon smears on the tiles. I also noticed puffs of steam escaping our mouths as the booth cooled like a meat locker.
I cocked the .357 and braced it across my thigh. “You must not be heralding the great zombie invasion. Lookin’ great, Steve. Not chalk white or anything. The rot must be on the inside.”
He flipped his hair and smirked. His trophy necklace of wedding rings, key fobs, dog tags, driver licenses, and glass eyes clinked and rattled. “Likewise, amigo. You’ve lost weight? Dyed your hair? What?”
“This and that—diet, exercise. Fleeing in terror has the bonus effect of getting a man in shape. Divorce, too. My wife used to fatten me up pretty good. Since she split . . . you know. TV dinners and Johnnie Walker. I got it going on, huh?” I gripped Minerva’s collar with my free hand. Her growls were deep and ferocious. She strained to lunge over the table, an eighty pound bowling bowl; rippling muscle and bone crushing jaws and, at the moment, bad intentions. My arm was tired already. Tempting to let my girl fly, but I loved her.
“I’m yanking your chain. You look like crap. When’s the last time you slept? There’s a motel a piece up the trail. Why not get room service, watch a porno, drink some booze and fall into peaceful slumber? You won’t even notice when I slip in there and slice your fucking throat ear to ear.” Graham’s smile widened. It was still him, too. Same guy I’d gotten drunk with at Nome saloons. Same perfect teeth, same easy manner, probably sincere. He’d not intimated any malice regarding his intent to skin me alive and eat my beating heart. This was business, mostly. He inclined his head slightly, as if intercepting my thought. “Not so much business as tradition. The Hunt is a sacred rite. I gave you the head start as a courtesy.”
He was telling the truth as I understood it from my research of the legends. To witness the Hunt, to interfere with the Hunt, was to become prey. I’d wondered why the emissaries of the Horned One waited so long to come after me, especially considering the magnitude of my transgression. “Well, I reckon that was sporting of you. Twenty years. Plenty of time for Odysseus to screw his way home from the front.”
“Yep, and you’re almost there, too,” Graham said. “Crazy ass scene on the ice, huh? Sergio Leone meets John Landis and they do it up right with razors. Man, you were totally Eastwood, six-gun blazing. Wounded the Huntsman in a serious way. Didn’t kill the fucker, though. Don’t flatter yourself on that score. Might be able to smoke the hounds with regular bullets. That shit don’t work so well on the Huntsman. We’re of a higher order. Nah, when that storm hit, some sort of force went through me, electrified me. I tore free of that altar and jumped on the bastard’s back, stuck a hunting knife into his kidney. Still wouldn’t have worked except the forces of darkness were smiling on me. Grooved on my style. The Boss demoted him, awarded me the mantle and the blade, the hounds, more bitches in Hell than you can shake a stick at. I’ve watched you for a while, bro. Watched you lose your woman, your career, your health. You’re an old, grizzled bull. No money, no family, no friends, no future. It’s culling time, baby.”
“Shit, you’re doing me a favor! Thanks, pal!”
“Come on, don’t be sarcastic. We’re still buds. This is going to be super-duper painful, but no reason to make it personal. Your hide will be but one more tossed atop a mountainous pile beside a chthonic lagoon of blood and the Horned One’s bone throne. The muster roll of the damned is endless, and the next name awaits my attentions.”
“Okay, nothing personal. Here’s the deal, since I’m the one with the hand cannon. You hold still and I’ll blow your head off. Take my chances with whomever they send next. No hard feelings.” I debated whether to shoot him under the table or risk raising the gun to aim properly.
Graham laughed. “Whoa, chief. This isn’t the place. All these hapless customers, the dishwasher, the waitress, the fry cooks. That sexy waitress. If we turn this into the O-K Corral, the Boss himself will be on the case. The Horned One isn’t a kindly soul. He comes around, everybody gets it in the neck. Them’s the rules, I’m afraid.”
A vision splashed across the home cinema of my imagination: every person in the diner strung from the rafters by their living guts, the hounds using the corpses for piñatas and the massive, shadowy bulk of the Horned God flickering fire in the parking lot as he gazed on in infernal joy. Like as not this image was projected by Graham. I glanced out the window and spotted one of the pack, a cadaverous brute in a threadbare parka and snow pants, pissing against the wheel of a semi. In another life he’d been Bukowski or Waits, or a serial killer who rode the rails and shanked fellow hobos, a strangler of coeds, a postman. I knew him for a split second, then not. Other hounds leaped from trailer to trailer, frolicking. Too dark to make out details, except that the figures flitted and fluttered with the lithe, rubbery grace of acrobats.
I said, “Tell me, Steve. What would’ve happened to you if I hadn’t interrupted the party? Where would you be tonight?”
He shrugged and his movie star teeth dulled to a shade of rotten ivory. “Ah, those are the sort of questions I try to let lie. The Boss frowns on us worrying about stuff above our pay grade.”
“Would you have become a hound?”
“Sometimes a damned soul gets dragged over to join the Hunt. Only the few, the proud. It’s a rare honor.”
Cold clamped on the back of my neck. “And the rest of the slobs who get taken? Where do they go after you’re done with them?”
“Not a clue, amigo. Truly an ineffable mystery.” His grin brightened again, so white, so frigid. He put on the cowboy hat. The logo was a red patch with a set of black antlers stitched in the foreground. Sign of the Horned God who was Graham’s master on the Other Side.
Minerva’s snarls and growls escalated to full-throated barks as she bristled and lunged. She’d had her fill of Mr. Death and his shark smirk. One of the truckers set down his coffee cup, pointed a thick finger at me, and said, “Hey, asshole. Shut that dog up.”
Graham’s eyes went dark, monitors tuned to deep space. A stain formed on the breast of his lily-white mackinaw. Blood dripped from his sleeve and the stink of carrion wafted from his mouth. He rose and turned and his shoulders seemed to broaden. I caught his profile reflected in the window and something was wrong with it, although I couldn’t tell what exactly. He said in a distorted, buzzing voice, “No, you shut your mouth. Or I’ll eat your tongue like a piece of Teriyaki.”
The trucker paled and scrambled from his seat and fled the diner without a word. His buddy followed suit. They didn’t grab their coats or pay the tab or anything. Other folks had twisted in their seats to view the commotion. None of them spoke, either. The waitress stood with her ticket book outthrust like a crucifix.
Graham said to them, “Hush, folks. Nothing to see here.” And everyone took the hint and went back to his or her business. He nodded and faced me, smile affixed, eyes sort of normal again. “I better get along, li’l doggie. Wanted to say hi. So hi and goodbye. Gonna keep trucking east? Wait, forget I asked. Don’t want to spoil the fun. See you soon, wherever that is.” Yeah, he grinned, but the wintry night was a heap warmer.
“Wait,” I said. “You mentioned rules. Be nice to know what they are.”
“Sure, there are lots of rules. However, you only need to worry about one of them: run, motherfucker.”
I never fully recovered from the incident in ‘92; not down deep, not in the way that counts. Nightmares plagued me. Oblique, horror-show recreations as seen through the obfuscating mist of a subconscious in denial. Neither me nor the shrink could make sense of them. He put me on pills and that didn’t help.
I sold the team to a Japanese millionaire and moved to the suburbs of Anchorage with Sharon, took a series of crummy labor jobs, and worked on the Great American horror novel in the evenings. She finished grad school and landed a position teaching elementary grade art. Ever fascinated with pulp classics, when the novel appeared to be a dead end I tried my hand at genre short fiction and immediately landed a few sales. By the early aughts I was doing well enough to justify quitting the construction gig and staying home to work on stories full-time.
These were supernatural horror stories, fueled by the nightmares I didn’t understand, until it all came crashing in on me one afternoon during a game of winter golf with some buddies down at the beach. I keeled over on the frozen sand and was momentarily transported back to Norton Sound while my friends stood around wringing their hands. Normal folks don’t know what to do around a lunatic writhing on the ground and babbling in tongues.
A week on the couch wrapped in an electric blanket and shaking with terror followed. I didn’t level with anyone—not the shrink, not Sharon or my parents, not my friends or writer colleagues. I read a piece on the Wild Hunt in an article concerning world mythology and it was like getting socked in the belly. I finally knew what had happened, if not why. All that was left was to brood.
Life went on. We tried for children without success. I have a hunch Sharon left me because I was shooting blanks. Who the fuck knows, though. Much like the Wild Hunt, the Meaning of Life, and where matching socks vanish to, her motives remain a mystery. Things seemed cozy between us; she’d always been sympathetic to my tics and twitches, and I’d tried to be a good and loving husband in return. Obviously, living with a half-crazed author took a greater toll than I’d estimated. Add screams in the night and generally paranoid behavior to the equation . . .
One day she came home early, packed her bags, and headed for Italy with a music teacher from her school. Not a single tear in her eye when she said adios to me, either. That was the same week my longtime agent, a lewd, crude alcoholic expat Brit named Stanley Jones, was indicted on numerous federal charges including embezzlement, wire fraud, and illegal alien residence. He and his lover, the obscure English horror writer Samson Marks, absconded to Mexico with my life savings, as well as the nest eggs of several other authors. The scandal made all the industry trade rags, but the cops didn’t seem overly concerned with chasing the duo.
I depended on those royalty checks as my physical condition was deteriorating. Cold weather made my bones ache. Some mornings my lumbar seized and it took twenty minutes to crawl out of bed. I hung on for a couple of years, but my situation declined. The publishing climate wasn’t friendly with the recession and such. Foreclosure notices soon arrived in the mailbox.
Then, last week, Graham reappeared to put my misery into perspective.
Prior to this latter event, Jack Fort theorized that Sharon didn’t run off to Italy because she was dissatisfied with the way things were going at home. Nor was it a coincidence that Jones robbed me blind and left me in the poorhouse. (Jack also employed the crook as an agent, and from what I gathered, the loss of funds contributed to his own divorce.) My friend became convinced dark forces had aligned against me in matters great and small.
Later, I told him about the Hunt and what I’d seen on the ice in 1992, how that particular chicken had come home to roost. He wasn’t the least bit surprised. Unflappable Jack Fort; the original drink-boiling-water-and-piss-ice-cubes guy.
The night I called him we were both drunk, and when I spilled the story of how Graham had returned from the grave and wanted to mount my head on a trophy room wall in hell, instead of expressing bewilderment or fear for my sanity, Jack just said, “Right. I figured it was something like this. From grad school onward, Graham was headed for trouble, pure and simple. He was asshole buddies with exactly the wrong type of people. Occultism is nothing to fuck with. Anyway, you’re sure it’s the Wild Hunt?”
“Graham referred to himself as the Huntsman. So. It happened almost exactly like the legends.” Granted, there were variations on the theme. Each culture has its peculiarities and so focuses on different aspects. Some versions of the Hunt mythology have Odin calling the tune. Under Odin’s yoke, the Hunt is an expression of exuberance and feral joy, a celebration of the primal. Odin’s pack travels a couple of feet off the ground. Any fool that stands in the way gets mowed like grass. See Odin coming, you grab dirt and pray the spectral procession passes overhead and keeps moving on the trail of its quarry.
The gang from Alaska seemed darker, crueler, dirtier than the storybook versions; Graham and his troops reeked of sadism and madness. That eldritch psychosis leached from them into me, gathered in effluvial dankness in the back of my throat, lay on my tongue as a foul taint. The important details were plenty consistent—slavering hounds, feral Huntsman, a horned deity overseeing the chase, death and damnation to the prey.
Jack asked what happened and I gave him the scoop: “I was hiking along Hatcher Pass to photograph the mountain for research. Heard a god-awful racket in a nearby canyon. Howling, psycho laughter, screams. Some kind of Viking horn. I knew what was happening before I saw the pack on the summit. Knew it in my bones—the legends vary, of course. Still, the basics are damned clear whether it’s the Norwegians, Germans, or Inuit. The pack wasn’t in full chase mode or that would’ve been curtains. They wanted to scare me; makes the kill sweeter. Anyway, I beat feet. Made it to the truck and burned rubber. Graham showed up at the house later in a greasy puff of smoke, chatted with me through the door. He said I had three days to get my shit in order and then he and his boys would be after me for real.”
Jack remained quiet for a bit, except to cough a horrible, phlegmy cough—it sounded wet and entrenched as bronchitis or pneumonia. Finally he said, “Well, head east. I might be able to help you. Graham and me knew each other pretty well once upon a time when he was still teaching, and I got some ideas what he was up to after he left Boulder. He was an adventurer, but I doubt he spent all that time in the frozen north for the thrill. Nah, my bet is he was searching for the Hunt and it found him first. Poor silly bastard.”
“Thanks, man. Although, I hate to bring this to your doorstep. Interfere in the Hunt and it’s you on the skinning board next.”
“Shut up, kid. Tend your knitting and I’ll see to mine.”
Big Jack Fort’s nonchalant reaction should’ve startled me, and under different circumstances I might’ve pondered how deep the tentacles of this particular conspiracy went. His advice appealed, though. Sure, the Huntsman wanted me to take to my heels; the chase gave him a boner. Nonetheless, I’d rather present a moving target than hang around the empty house waiting to get snuffed on the toilet or in my sleep. Graham’s flayed body glistening in the arctic twilight was branded into my psyche.
“You better step lively,” Jack warned me, in that gravelly voice of his that always sounded the same whether sober or stewed. A big dude, built square, the offspring of Raymond Burr and a grand piano. Likely he was sprawled across his couch in a tee shirt and boxers, bottle of Maker’s Mark in one paw. “Got complications on my end. Can’t talk about them right now. Just haul ass and get here.”
I didn’t like the sound of that, nor the sound of his coughing. Despite a weakness for booze, Jack was one of the more stable guys in the business. However, he was a bit older than me and playing the role of estranged husband. Then there was the crap with Jones and dwindling book sales in general. I thought maybe he was cracking. I thought maybe we were both cracking.
Later that night I loaded the truck with a few essentials, including my wedding album and a handful of paperbacks I’d acquired at various literary conventions, locked the house, and lit out.
In the rearview mirror I saw Graham and three of his hounds as silhouettes on the garage roof, pinprick eyes blazing red as I drove away. It was, as the kids say, game on.
Rocketing through Indiana, “Slippery People” on the radio, darkness all around, darkness inside. The radio crackled and static erased the Talking Heads and Graham said to me, “Everybody on the lam from the Hunt feels sorry for himself. Thing of it is, amigo, you’re tuned to the wrong tune. You should ask yourself, How did I get here? What have I done?”
The pack raced alongside the truck. Hounds and master shimmered like starlight against the velvet backdrop, twisted like funnels of smoke. The Huntsman blew me a kiss and I tromped the accelerator and they fell off the pace. One of the hounds leaped the embankment rail and loped after me, snout pressed to the centerline. It darted into the shadows an instant before being overtaken and smooshed by a tractor trailer.
I pushed beyond exhaustion and well into the realm of zombification. The highway was a wormhole between dimensions and Graham occasionally whispered to me through the radio even though I’d hit the kill switch. And what he’d said really worked on me. What had I done to come to this pass? Maybe Sharon left me because I was a sonofabitch. Maybe Jones screwing me over was karma. The Wild Hunt might be a case of the universe getting Even-Steven (pardon the pun) with me. Thank the gods I didn’t have a bottle of liquor handy or else I’d have spent the remainder of the long night totally blitzed and sobbing like a baby over misdeeds real and imagined. Instead, I popped the cap on a bottle of NoDoz and put the hammer down.
I parked and slept once in a turnout for a couple of hours during the middle of the day when traffic ran thickest. I risked no more than that. The Hunt had its rules regarding the taking of prey in front of too many witnesses, but I didn’t have the balls to challenge those traditions.
The Chevy died outside Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Every gauge went crazy and plumes of steam boiled from the radiator. I got the rig towed to a salvage yard and transferred Minerva and my meager belongings to a compact rental. We were back on the road before breakfast, and late afternoon saw us aboard the ferry from Port Sanger, New York, to Lamprey Isle.
What to say about LI West (as Jack referred to it)? Nineteen miles north to south and about half that at its widest, the whole curved into a malformed crescent, the Man in the Moon’s visage peeled from Luna and partially submerged in the Atlantic. Its rocky shore was sculpted by the clash of wind and sea; a forest of pine, maple, and oak spanned the interior. Home of hoot owls and red squirrels; good deer hunting along the secret winding trails, I’d heard. Native burial mounds and mysterious megaliths, I’d also heard.
The main population center, Lamprey Township (pop. 2201), nestled in a cove on the southwestern tip of the island. Jack had mentioned that the town had been established as a fishing village in the early nineteenth century; prior to that, smugglers and slavers made it their refuge from privateers and local authorities. A den of illicit gambling and sodomy, I’d heard. Allegedly, the name arose from a vicious species of eels that infested the local waters. Long as a man’s arm, the locals claimed.
Lamprey Township was a fog-shrouded settlement hemmed by the cove and spearhead shoals, a picket of evergreens. A gloomy cathedral fortress reared atop a cliff streaked with seagull shit and pocked by cave entrances. Lovers Leap. In town, everybody wore flannel and rain slickers, boots and sock caps. A folding knife and mackinaw crowd. Everything was covered in salt rime, everything tasted of brine. Piloting the rental down Main Street between boardwalks, compartment of the car flushed with soft blue-red lights reflecting from the ocean, I thought this wouldn’t be such a bad place to die. Release my essential salts back into the primordial cradle.
Jack’s cabin lay inland at the far end of a dirt spur. Built in the same era as the founding of Lamprey Township, he’d bought it from Katarina Veniti, a paranormal romance author who’d become jaded with all of the tourists and yuppies moving onto “her” island during the last recession. A stone and timber longhouse with ye old-fashioned shingles and moss on the roof surrounded by an acre of sloping yard overgrown with tall, dead grass. An oak had uprooted during a recent windstorm and toppled across the drive.
Minerva and I hoofed it the last quarter of a mile. The faceless moon dripped and shone through scudding clouds and a vault of branches. The house sat in darkness except for a light shining from the kitchen window.
“Welcome to Kat’s island,” Jack said, and coughed. He reclined in the shadows on a porch swing. Moonlight glinted from the bottle in his hand, the barrel of the pump-action shotgun across his knees. He wore a wool coat, dock-worker’s cap snug over his brow, wool pants, and lace-up hiking boots. When he stood to shake my hand, I realized his clothes hung loose as sails, that he was frail and shaky.
“Jesus, man,” I said, shaken at the sight of him. He appeared more of an apparition than the bona fide spirit pursuing me. I understood why he didn’t mind the idea of the Hunt invading his happy home. The man was so emaciated he should’ve been hanging near the blackboard in science class; a hundred pounds lighter since I’d last seen him, easy. He’d shaved his head and beard to gray stubble; his pallid flesh was dry and hot, his eyes sparkled like bits of quartz. He stank of gun oil, smoke, and rotting fruit.
“Yeah. The big C. Doc hit me with the bad news this spring. Deathwatch around the Fort. I sent the pets to live with my sister.” He smiled and gestured at the woods. “Just you, me, and the trees. I got nothing better to do than help an old pal in his hour of need.” He led the way inside. The kitchen was cheerily lighted, and we took residence at the dining table where he poured me a glass of whiskey and listened to my recap of the trip from Alaska.
“I hope you’ve got a plan,” I said.
“Besides blasting them with grandma’s twelve gauge?” He patted the stock of his shotgun where it lay on the table. “We’re going out like a pair of Vikings.”
“I’d be more excited if you had a flamethrower, or some grenades.”
“Me too. Me too. I got a few sticks of dynamite for fishing and plenty of ammo.”
“Dynamite is good. This is going to be full on Hollywood. Fast cars, shirtless women, explosions . . .”
“Man, I don’t even know if it’ll detonate. The shit’s been stashed in a leaky box in the cellar for a hundred years. Honestly, my estimation is, we’re hosed. Totally up shit creek. Our sole advantage is prey doesn’t usually fight back. Graham’s powerful, he’s a spirit, or a monster, whatever. But he’s new on the job, right? That may be our ray of sunshine. That, and according to the literature, the Pack doesn’t fancy crossing large bodies of open water. These haunts prefer ice and snow.” Jack coughed into a handkerchief. Belly-ripping, Doc Holliday kind of coughing. He wiped his mouth and had a belt of whiskey. His cheeks were blotched. “Anyway, I brought you here for another reason. This house belonged to a sorcerer once upon a time. Type they used to burn at the stake. An unsavory guy named Ewers Welloc. The Wellocs own most of this island and there’s a hell of a story in that. For now, let me say Ewers was blackest in a family of black sheep. The villagers were scared shitless of him, were convinced he practiced necromancy and other dark arts on the property. Considering the stories Kat told me and some of the funky stuff I’ve found stashed around here, it’s hard to dismiss the villagers claims as superstition.”
I could only wonder what he’d unearthed, or Kat before him. Jack bought the place for a dollar and suddenly that factoid assumed ominous significance. “What were you guys up to? You, Kat, and Graham attended college together. Did you form a club?”
“A witch coven. I kid, I kid. Wasn’t college . . . We met at the Sugar Tree Hill writers’ retreat. Five days of sun, fun, booze, and hand jobs. There were quite a few young authors there who went on to become quasi-prominent. Many a friendship and enmity are formed at Sugar Tree Hill. The three of us really clicked. Me and Kat were wild, man, wild. Nothing on Graham’s scale, though. He took it way farther. As you can see.”
“Yeah.” I sipped my drink.
“Me and Graham were pretty tight until he schlepped to Alaska and started in with the sled dogs. Communication tapered off and after a while we fell out of touch. I received a few letters. Guy had the world’s shittiest penmanship; would’ve taken a cryptologist to have deciphered them. I thought he suffered from cabin fever.”
“Seemed okay to me,” I said. “Gregarious. Popular. Handsome. He was well-regarded.”
“Yeah, yeah . . . The rot was on the inside,” Jack said and I almost spilled my glass. He didn’t notice. “As it happens, my hole card is an ace. Lamprey Isle was settled long before the whites landed. Maybe before the Mohawk, Mohican, Seneca. Nobody knows who these people were, but none of the records are flattering. This mystery tribe left megaliths and cairns on islands and along the coast. A few of those megaliths are in the woods around here. Legend has it that the tribe erected them for use in necromantic rituals. Summon, bind, banish. Like Robert Howard hypothesized in his Conan tales—if the demonic manifests on the mortal plane, it becomes subject to the laws of physics, and cold Hyperborean steel. Howard was onto something.”
“Fairy rocks, huh?” I said. The whiskey was hitting me.
“Got any problem believing in the Grim Reaper with a hunting knife and a pack of werewolves chasing you from one end of the continent to the other?”
I tried again. “So. Fairy rocks.”
“Fuckin’ A, boy-o. Fairy rocks. And double aught buckshot.”
We took shifts at watch until dawn. The Hunt didn’t arrive and so passed a peaceful evening. I slept for three hours; the most I’d had in a week. Jack fried bacon and eggs for breakfast and we drank a pot of black coffee. Afterward he gave me a tour of the house and the immediate grounds. Much of the house gathered dust, exuding the vibe particular to dwellings of bachelors and widowers. Since his wife flew the coop, Jack’s remit had contracted to kitchen, bath, living room. Too close to a tomb for my liking.
Tromping around the property with our breath streaming slantwise, he showed me a megalith hidden in the underbrush between a pair of sugar maples. Huge and misshapen beneath layers of slime and moss, the stone cast a shadow over us. It radiated the chill of an ice block. One of several in the vicinity, I soon learned.
Jack wasn’t eager to hang around it. “There were lots of animal bones piled in the bushes. You’ll never catch any animals living here. Wasn’t the two decks of Camels I smoked every day since junior high that gave me cancer. It’s these damned things. Near as I can figure, they’re siphons. Let’s pray the effect is magnified upon extra-dimensional beings. Otherwise, Graham will just eat our bullets and spit them back at us.”
The megalith frightened me. I imagined it as a huge, predatory insect disguised as a stone, its ethereal rostrum stabbing an artery and sucking my life essence. I wondered if the stones were indigenous, or if the ancient tribes had fashioned them somehow. I’d never know. “Graham’s an occultist. Think he’s dumb enough to walk into a trap?”
“Graham ain’t Graham anymore. He’s the Huntsman.” Jack scanned the red-gold horizon and muttered dire predictions of another storm front descending from the west. “Trouble headed this way,” he said and hustled me back to the house. We locked and shuttered everything and took positions in the living room; Jack with his shotgun, me with my pistol and dog. Seated on the leather Italian sofa, bolstered by a pitcher of vodka and lemonade, we watched ancient episodes of The Rockford Files and Ironside and waited.
Several minutes past two p.m., the air dimmed to velvety purple and the trees behind the house thrashed and rain spattered the windows. The power died. I whistled a few bars of the Twilight Zone theme, shifted the pistol into my shooting hand.
Jack grinned and went to the window and stood there, a blue shadow limned in black. The booze in my tumbler quivered and the horn bellowed, right on top of us. Glass exploded and I was bleeding from the head and both hands that I’d raised to protect my face. Wood splintered and doors caved in all over the house and the hounds rolled into the living room; long, sinuous figures of pure malevolence with ruby-bright eyes, low to the floor and moving fast, teeth, tongues, appetite. I squinted and fired twice from the hip, and a bounding figure jerked short. Minerva pounced, snarling and tearing in frenzy, doggy mind reverting to the swamps and jungles and caves of her ancestors. Jack’s shotgun blazed a stroke of yellow flame and sheared the arm of a fiend who’d scuttled in close. Partially deafened and blinded, I couldn’t keep track of much after that. Squeezed the trigger four more times, popped the speed loader with six fresh slugs, kept firing at shadows that leaped and sprang. The Riders of the Apocalypse and Friends galloped through the house—our own private Armageddon. More glass whirled, and bits of wood and shreds of drapery; a section of ceiling collapsed in a cascade of sparks and rapidly blooming white carnations of drywall dust. Now the gods could watch.
Thunder of gunshots, Minerva growling, the damned, yodeling cries of the hounds, and crackling bones, wound around my brain in a knotted spool. I got knocked down in the melee and watched Minerva swing past, lazily flying, paws limp, guts raveling behind her. I’d owned many dogs, but Minerva was my first and only pet, my dearest friend. She was a mewling puppy once more, then inert bone and slack hide, and gone, gone, the last pinprick of my life snuffed.
Something was on fire. Oily black smoke seethed through a vertical impact crater where the far wall had stood. Moon, clouds, and smoke boiled there. A couple of fingers were missing from my left hand. Blood pulsed forth: a shiny, crimson bouquet thickening into a lump at the end of my wrist, a wax sculpture from the house of horrors, an object example of Medieval torture. It didn’t hurt. Didn’t feel like anything. My jacket had been sliced, and the flesh beneath it, so that my innards glistened in the cold air. That didn’t hurt either. Instead, I was buoyed by a feral joy. This wouldn’t take much longer by the looks of it. I pulled the jacket closed as best I could and began the laborious process of standing. Almost done, almost home.
Jack cursed through a mouthful of dirt. The Huntsman had entered the fray and caught his skull in one splayed hand. He sawed through Jack’s throat with that jagged flint dagger hewn from Stone Age crystal. The Huntsman sawed with so much vigor that Jack’s limbs flopped crazily, a crash test dummy at the moment of impact. Graham let Jack’s carcass thump to the sodden carpet among the savaged bodies of the pack. He pointed at me, him playing the lead man of a rock band shouting out to his audience. Yeah, the gods were with us, and no doubt.
“So, we meet again.” He chuckled and licked his lips and wiped the Satan knife against his gory mackinaw. He approached, shuffling like a seal through the smoldering gloom, lighted by an inner radiance that bathed him in a weird, pale glow as cold and alien as the Aurora Borealis. The death-light of Hades, presumably. His eyes were hidden by the brim of his hat, but his smile curved, joyless and cruel.
I made it to my feet and scrambled backward over the flaming wreckage of coffee tables and easy chairs, the upended couch, and into the hall. Blood came from me in ropes, in sheets. Graham followed, smiling, smiling. Doorframes buckled as his shoulders brushed them. He swiped the knife in a loose and easy diamond pattern. The knife hissed as it rehearsed my evisceration. I wasn’t worried about that. I was long past worry. Thoughts of vengeance dominated.
“You killed my dog.” Blood bubbles plopped from my lips, and that’s never good. Another dose of ferocious, joyful melancholy spurred me onward. I pitched the empty revolver at his head, watched the gun glance aside and spin away. My tears froze to salt on my cheeks. Arctic ice groaned beneath my boots as the sea swelled, yearned toward the moon. The sea drained the warmth from me, taking back what it had given.
“You killed your dog, mon frère. You did for our buddy Jack, too. Bringing me and my boys here like this. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s a volunteer army, right?”
I turned away, sliding, overbalancing. My legs folded and I slumped before a fallen timber, its charred length licked by small flames. The blood from my ruined hand sizzled and spat. I rubbed my face against the floor, painting myself a war mask of gore and charcoal. By the time he’d crossed the gap between us and seized my hair to flip me onto my back, at the precise moment he sank the blade into my chest, the fuse on the glycerin-wet stick of dynamite was a nub disappearing into its burrow.
Graham’s exultant expression changed. “Well, I forgot Jack was a fisherman,” he said. That fucking knife kept traveling, the irresistible force, and I embraced it, and him.
The Eternal Footman clapped, once.
After an eon of vectoring through infinite night, the door to the tilt-a-whirl opened and I plummeted and hit the earth hard enough to raise dust. Mud instead. An angelic choir serenaded me from stage left, beyond a screen of tall trees and fog. Wagner as interpreted by Homer’s sirens. The voices rose and fell, sweetly demanding my blood, the heat of my bones. That sounded fine; I imagined the soft, red lips parted, imagined that they glowed as the Huntsman glowed, but as an expression of erotic passion rather than malice, and I longed to open a vein for them.
I came to, paralyzed. Pieces of me lay scattered across the backyard. Probably for the best that I couldn’t turn my neck to properly survey the damage.
Graham sprawled across from me, face-down in the wet leaves. Wisps of smoke curled from him. He shuddered violently and lifted his head. Bones and joints snapped into place again. The left eye shimmered with reflections of fire. The right eye was black. Neither were human.
He said, “Are you dead? Are you dead? Or are you playing possum? I think you’re mostly dead. It doesn’t matter. Hell is come as you are.” He shook himself and began to crawl in my direction, slithering with a horrible serpent-like elasticity.
Mostly dead must’ve meant 99.9 percent dead, because I couldn’t even blink, much less raise a hand to forestall his taking my skull for the mantle, my soul to the bad place. A red haze obscured my vision and the world receded. The sirens in the forest called again, louder yet. Graham hesitated, his glance drawn to the voices that came from many directions now and sang in many languages.
Jack staggered from the smoking ruins of the house. He appeared to have been dunked in a vat of blood. He held his shotgun in a death grip. “The bell tolls for you, Stevie,” he said and blew off Graham’s left leg. He racked the slide and blasted Graham’s right leg to smithereens below the kneecap. Graham screamed and whipped around and tried to hamstring his tormentor. Not quite fast enough. Jack proved agile for an old guy with a slit throat.
The siren choir screamed in pleasure. Blam! Blam! Graham’s hands went bye-bye. The next slug severed his spine, judging by the ragdoll effect. His body went limp and he screamed, and I’m sure he would’ve happily leaped on Jack and eaten him alive if Jack hadn’t already dismembered him with some fancy shotgun work. Jack said something I didn’t catch. Might’ve uttered a curse in a foreign tongue . . . then stuck the barrel under Graham’s chin and took his head off with the last round.
I cheered telepathically. Then I finished dying. The score as the curtains closed was lovely, lovely.
This time I emerged from eternal night to Minerva kissing my face. I was lying on my back in the kitchen. There was a hole in the ceiling and gray daylight poured through along with steady trickles of water from busted pipes.
Jack slouched at the table, which was stacked with various odds and ends. His shoulders were wide and round as boulders and he’d gained back all the weight cancer had stolen. He clutched a bottle of Old Crow and watched me intently. He said, “Stay away from the light, kid. It’s fire and lava.”
I spat clotted blood. Finally, I said, “He’s dead?”
“Singing . . .” I managed.
“Oh, yeah. Don’t listen. That’s just the vampire stones. They’re fat on Graham’s energy.”
“How’d I get in here?”
“I dragged you by your hair.”
The world kept solidifying around me, and my senses along with it. Me, Minerva, and Jack being alive didn’t compute. Except, as the cobwebs cleared from my mind, it made a sinister kind of sense. I laid my hand on Minerva’s fur and noticed the red sparks in her eyes, how goddamned long and white her teeth were. “Oh, shit,” I said.
“Yeah,” Jack said. He set aside the bottle and shrugged into the Huntsman’s impeccable snow white mackinaw. Perfect fit. Next came the Huntsman’s hat. Different on Jack; broader and of a style I didn’t recognize. The red and black crest was gone. Real antlers in its stead. A shadow crossed his expression and the light in the room gathered in his eyes. “Get up,” he said.
And I did. Not a mark on me. I felt quite alive for a dead man. Hideous strength coursed through my limbs. I thought of my philandering ex-wife, her music teacher beau, and hideous thoughts coursed through my mind. I must’ve retained a tiny fragment of humanity because I managed to look away from that vista of terrible and splendorous vengeance. For the moment, at least. I said, “Where now?”
Jack leaned on a broad, barbed spear that had replaced his emptied shotgun. “There’s this guy in Mexico I’d like to visit,” he said. He handed me the flint knife and the herald’s horn. “Do the honors, kid.”
“Oh, Stanley. It’ll be good to see you again.” I pressed the horn to my lips and winded it, once. The kitchen wall disintegrated and the shockwave traveled swiftly, rippling grass and causing birds to lift in panic from the trees. I imagined Stanley Jones, somewhere far to the south, seated on his veranda, tequila at hand, American newspaper balanced on his rickety knee, ear cocked, straining to divine the origin of dim bellow carried by the wind.
Minerva bayed. She gathered her sleek, killing bulk and hurtled across the yard and into the woods.
I patted the hilt of the knife and followed her.
© 2012 Laird Barron.